COLUMBIA CITY — “It’s different, but nothing can reduce our happiness to be back.”

After five months out of the buildings, Whitley County Consolidated Schools Superintendent Patricia O’Connor spoke to the Board of Trustees one last time before Thursday’s first day of school.

The schools plan to open 100% with modifications, but O’Connor stressed that the plans are very fluid, subject to the local COVID-19 status, recommendations from local and state health departments, and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb.

“We will ge through this, but we may have continued changes as we go along,” she said. “Our plans are in constant motion.”

The district had almost 460 students sign up for virtual learning for the first semester — much more than expected.

“I thought we might have a handful of families for students or families who were at risk, and that we would have a need for a live-streaming option for some students,” O’Connor said. “It was a big surprise to us.”

With limited time to make plans for those 460 schools, O’Connor named Kurt Kehmeyer as the district’s remote learning coordinator, leading a group of teachers — some of whom have accepted roles of full-time virtual instructors.

Administrators pooled elementary students from all four elementary schools who signed up for e-learning and assigned each grade level a full-time teacher.

“We have a remote learning elementary school with a coordinator and a group of nine teachers who will be teaching students K-5 for at least the first semester of this year, and most likely the entire year,” O’Connor said.

This middle school will have several teachers who utilize a couple periods during the day to teach a virtual class, then spend the rest of the day in the traditional classroom.

The schedule becomes much more difficult to manage at the high school level, with a wide variety of class options.

“The high school was a big challenge,” O’Connor said.

Scheduling centered around making necessary classes available to students first, then attempting to make virtual the elective classes. In some instances, teachers will have a fully virtual class. In others, the class will be hybrid — there will be a live stream of the classroom, with in-person students as well.

Some teachers will have extra classes outside of the normal school day to accommodate for virtual learners.

The district has outlined expectations for virtual learning, which will look much different this fall than it did in the spring, where students essentially made their own schedules.

“Attendance of students must be robust, it will be monitored, and there will be classroom expectations,” O’Connor said. “There’s a class schedule for all students and they will be expected to be ‘where’ they’re supposed to be at the time they’re supposed to be there.”

At the high school level, all of these changes had to be made while teachers and administrators were already extra busy.

“This was all planned while moving in to a new high school,” O’Connor said. “The high schools have rallied, are filling in, picking up, and helping kids get what they need while staying home.”

All of the extra effort comes with a cost, as some teachers will receive additional pay for the additional work.

“This is a very pricey program — there is a considerable amount of additional funding that we will be utilizing, but we feel it is very important to educate these 460 students while going through a pandemic,” O’Connor said. “We feel it’s worth the effort.”

Also at the board meeting, O’Connor discussed the upcoming auction of items from the 1958 Columbia City High School building, which will be put on by Schrader’s. There will be a walk-through on Sept. 23 and the auction will be held Sept. 24 and 26.

“That begins us getting rid of everything that’s left,” O’Connor said. “Everything will be completely out of there, then we’ll do the asbestos abatement program, demolish the school and convey the land to the city,” O’Connor said.

An official demolition day has not been set, but it is expected to take place before the end of 2020.

There have been a couple items held up at the new building’s campus — the traffic signal and the elevator.

The elevator is 100% complete and functional, but the school is still waiting on its permit.

The erection of the traffic signal has been delayed, so officers will be posted at the entrance to the campus to help direct traffic until it is complete.

The dedication for the new building, planned for Sept. 20, has been canceled, with a replacement event planned for the spring. The ceremony will be produced virtually and will be made available to the public.

“Things will hopefully get better and we’ll have a big celebration and invite the community to come and view our new school,” O’Connor said.

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